How two worlds 8000 miles away team up to reveal the ancient past

The fjords of Norway and the rugged coasts of the Patagonia region of Argentina are quite literally on opposite ends of the Earth, separated by thousands of miles and multiple hemispheres. And yet the two combine for one archaeological goldmine.

Of course, for all but the last 500 or so years, the two regions have been entirely isolated from one another, so there's no cultural overlap. The two just happen to be an extremely good match for each other in terms of climate and topography. That means that archaeologists can reasonably expect that the first human settlers in each region would face similar challenges, and they might well adapt to their new environment in much the same ways.

That's why archaeologists from Norway and Argentina are pooling their resources to see what the two distant lands can reveal about each other. The big boon is that each can provide something the other lacks. Due to differences in their physical environments, different things were preserved in Norway than Argentina. Professor Hein Bjerck of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology's Museum of Natural History and Archaeology explains:

"Our project, Marine Ventures, gives us a valued opportunity to explore similarities and differences in both landscapes and marine pioneers between the two countries. The main difference is that we have 1000 known localities in Norway from the early Mesolithic era (9500-8000 BC), but we don't have any organic material. In Patagonia, however, they have few very early locations, but much more information on the sites: tools, organic material, and food remains, like seal and mussels."

Because of how glaciers shaped the two areas, early settlers in Norway and Patagonia had to be entirely reliant on the sea. That limits the scope of human adaptations to the land, and so combining the two data sets can provide some useful bigger picture information on how pre-technological humans interact with rugged coastal landscapes. While neither region can directly speak to the prehistory of the other, we can gain great insight into the overall mechanics of early marine adaptations.

It's an innovative way of approaching archaeology, and an intriguing tool for bridging gaps in knowledge in areas where the archaeological record is woefully incomplete. Obviously, it's something we have to be careful with - if the two environments being compared aren't similar enough, then the comparisons can all too easily lead us astray. Still, this is one of the most intriguing ways of supplementing our knowledge of a field where what we recover of our archaeological past will likely only ever represent the tiniest fraction of a fraction of our entire prehistory.

Via Norwegian University of Science and Technology. Image by Hein Bjerck, NTNU Museum of Natural History and Archaeology.